For many families, embarking on the "college tour" - or a series of strategic college visits typically determined by geography -- is an important rite of passage not only for the prospective applicant but also for the parents accompanying the applicant.
For parents, there are a number of important considerations to keep in mind.
First, it's not about you. Choosing a college is among the most important first decisions that your child can make. It must be their decision because in the end it's their life, whether their choice is the one that you would make or not. That having been said there are certain family parameters that you can set in place before the tour begins.
Before you begin to tour, plan ahead. Have you saved sufficiently to cover the expected family contribution and any additional costs like study abroad or unpaid internships that will occur? If not, what can you do to meet some of the obligations expected of parents who rightfully should have some "skin in the game?" Are you prepared to sacrifice for your child?
Whether you have saved or not, do you understand state, federal, private and institutional sources of aid? Are you committed to working with your child to complete all aid requests in a timely fashion to ensure full consideration of your aid request? Can you determine in advance what the range of outside support is likely to be based on your income and assets?
Does this number affect the choice of schools to tour, particularly for middle class families looking at institutions that likely do not fully meet their need? What plans do you have - including loans - to meet this gap?
If the plan is to seek additional professional and graduate training, what is the full debt load that your daughter or son might incur? Does this number limit the amount of undergraduate debt, at least for your planning purposes?
For all of this planning, remember that applicants do not have a problem until two events occur. First, they must be accepted to the college. And, then, they must review the financials to determine their cost of attendance. There's no point in unspecified family angst until you see the bottom-line "all in" number on the full cost of attendance.
It's better for a student to shoot high than to take themselves out of consideration before the process begins. The circumstances depend upon the family. If a community or a public four-year college or university is the starting point realistically, then adjust your family's expectation accordingly. There are superb choices for students.
The level of excellence depends on how well your eye is trained during the college tour. The campus will look its best and the tour guides will be friendly. Many colleges of excellent quality, however, are not meeting their freshman class targets and will work with you. Look for some key indicators that will help your family make an informed decision.
As you arrive on campus the question should be, does this college meet my standards for investment based upon my child's interest?
Here are some suggestions:
- At the undergraduate level, it's first about the quality of teaching. As a college president, what always impressed me most about the faculty with whom I was privileged to work was their knowledge of their field and commitment to their students. Great teaching matters.
Remember that it's always better for the applicant to ask the questions.
Finally, college applications should be organized on a three-tier system grouped by difficulty and based on selectivity, interest, and their college tour experiences from most to least likely to admit. Applicants should also understand that it's possible to be happy at many of the colleges and universities that they visited. But, like the applicant, there is no single perfect institution among many excellent ones.
Ultimately, the college tour is some combination of careful preparation mixed with fun. It's more of a marathon than a sprint and the worst runners exhaust themselves unnecessarily early in the game. Like the Boy Scouts' motto, the best single piece of advice is to "be prepared."